In 1973, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle presented his L'italiana in Algeri, a show full of traditional orientalism, “Turkish” costumes and beautiful images. It has become an iconic production, a classic. The Teatro alla Scala proposes it again today, in a revival by Grischa Agaroff, to open the substantial Autumn portion of the 2020-21 season. It’s starting to look a bit dated, but is still funny and quite unobtrusive.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of L'italiana in Algeri returns to La Scala
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

L'italiana is one of the most famous of Rossini’s comic operas. It tells the story of Isabella, a spirited Italian woman who sets out to rescue her lover, Lindoro, who has been captured and enslaved by Mustafa, the Bey in Algiers. She embarks on this adventure with the help of another lover, Taddeo, who has no idea he’s actually going to rescue his rival. They, and the whole ship's crew, are captured by Mustafa, who falls in love with Isabella. After much nonsense, all the Italians manage to free themselves and flee from Algiers, leaving Mustafa scorned.

The overture was unfortunately disappointing. Ottavio Dantone started with an approach which seemed a bit too romantic and proceeded with an inappropriate accelerando. The crescendo was very boisterous and, honestly, the explosion of cymbals, tambourines and percussions was excessive. What followed the overture was much more Rossinian in style and the La Scala orchestra treated us to some very detailed, elegant playing for most of the evening. There was some misalignment between pit and stage in the ensemble at the end of the first scene, but it was quickly resolved: the second repetition went much smoother and at tempo, so nothing that won’t be ironed out in the following performances of the run. Dantone was very careful in supporting the singers and not overpowering them, and the balance was generally very good. Sadly, the thundering attitude returned for the Act 1 finale, and at the end of the quintet “Sento un fremito” in the second act, where I started thinking pots and pans had been added to the score. It was particularly regrettable, because the quintet had been absolutely fantastic up until the end, the orchestra and singers all working together as parts of the “Rossini engine”, churning away with precision and style.

Gaëlle Arquez (Isabella)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Isabella was Gaëlle Arquez, who is a specialist of Baroque music and French repertoire, with occasional excursions into Rossini and Italian bel canto. She impressed with her bronzed, velvety mezzo, but her cavatina “Cruda sorte” did not come through as convincingly as we could have hoped. She added some unusual variations that were not exactly in style and ended in an almost Puccinian scale to the high note, which didn’t seem entirely appropriate. Her coloratura lacked the clear-cut quality one usually associates with Rossini, where the notes stand out one by one, but was still precise and always perfectly in tune. Things considerably improved for her in the second act. The slow seductive aria “Per lui che adoro” was ravishing, her legato floating on the breath, and perfectly shaped phrases. Her final aria “Pensa alla patria” was also enjoyable: she seemed more confident in the coloratura, and the variations were very good.

Gaëlle Arquez (Isabella) and chorus
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The male side of the cast was comprised of solid Rossini specialists, who all gave truly enjoyable performances. Carlo Lepore was Mustafa, replacing an ailing Mirco Palazzi. He turned out to be one of the most successful singers of the evening: his coloratura was impeccable, his style on point, and he showed quite a comical flair. Lindoro was Maxim Mironov, one of the best Rossini tenors of his generation. He was extremely comfortable in the part and looked as dashing as ever – an Italian dandy in Algiers. He often strikes me as an “old style” singer, both from the stately way he carries himself on stage, and the quality of his voice, light, elegant, and often slightly larmoyant. These qualities were perfectly suited to the role of Lindoro, and he justly received the largest applause at the curtain call.

Taddeo, the betrayed lover, is a typical Rossini buffo role, and Roberto de Candia fitted the bill, with great coloratura and funny acting. Giulio Mastrototaro was a luxury Haly (captain of the pirates in Algiers), delivering his aria di sorbetto “Le femmine d’Italia” with grace and confidence. The cast was completed by Enkeleda Kamani as Elvira, Mustafa’s wife, and Svetlina Stoyanova as her maid and confidante, Zulma. Kamani was very effective with her silvery soprano and metallic high notes, especially in the concertati, and Stoyanova impressed with a mezzo voice of beautiful colour.